Decision on Guantanamo Briton "one for the US", says Minister

A letter from Alistair Burt, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, reveals that the British government is unwilling to challenge the US over the continuing US detention of Shaker Aamer, a British resident who has been held at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial for almost 9 years.

The letter is dated 20 December 2010 and was sent to Mark Lazarowicz MP (Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith) in response to concerns raised on behalf of a constituent. Alistair Burt says:

"We continue to discuss Mr Aamer's case with officials in the US but the outcome of these discussions is uncertain. It is important to be clear that the ultimate decision in respect of Mr Aamer's release remains one for the US."

He adds:

"The UK believes that the indefinite detention of detainees is unacceptable, and we have repeatedly called for Guantanamo Bay to be closed."

Commenting on the letter, Richard Haley, Chair of civil liberties group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC), said:

"What this amounts to is that the Minister recognises - as he must - that indefinite detention is prohibited under international law, but at the same time he accepts the United States' self-proclaimed right to defy international law. No progress in these negotiations can be expected as long as Britain continues to grant the US the last word on the matter. It seems that David Cameron is a lion when setting riot police onto student demonstrators and a mouse when dealing with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He needs to find some backbone and insist on Shaker Aamer's release to freedom in Britain."

Oddly, Alistair Burt, whose Foreign Office responsiblities include North America, says that he is replying as Minister responsible for counter terrorism issues. Shaker Aamer has not been charged with terrorism, or indeed with any other crime. His case is not a counter terrorism issue. He is simply a British resident who is being illegally held by a foerign power and stands in desperate need of Foreign Office assistance.

In an apparent signal that the Coalition Government is unwilling to provide refuge in Britain to any other Guantanamo prisoners, Alistair Burt points out in his letter that Britain has taken back more former detainees that any other EU member state. He does not mention that Britain has only taken back UK nationals and UK legal residents, whereas other countries such as Ireland, France, Spain, Germany and Bulgaria have accepted former detainees who don't have strong connections to those countries but are unable to return safely to their countries of origin.

The apparent hardening of the Government's position will disappoint Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian man previously resident in Britain who is still being held at Guantanamo Bay despite having been cleared for release. The British government does not recognise him as a legal UK resident because he failed to attend an asylum hearing in January 2002 - at that time he was being held illegally and secretly at Guantanamo Bay. The US now wants to forcibly return him to Algeria, where he would almost certainly be subject to severe abuse. In November 2009 he was convicted in absentia in Algeria of unspecified charges. In December 2010 legal charity Reprieve started proceedings to force the British government to disclose information that could assist Ahmed Belbacha's battle in US courts.

Next week will mark the ninth anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. SACC believes that it is time for Britain to turn away from the obsequiousness towards the US shown by Blair, Brown and Cameron and instead to act decisively to force the closure of Guantanamo Bay and the release of the Guantanamo detainees. Some of the necessary steps are set out in an Early Day Motion tabled in November by Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion (EDM 1093, Guantanamo Bay). The British government has to get serious about bringing Shaker Aamer home, and it has to open Britain's doors, on humanitarian grounds and in recognition of Britain's complicity in Guantanamo's lawlessness, to Guantanamo prisoners who wish to settle here. They are not terrorists; they are torture victims.

Letter from Alistair Burt

Full text of the letter from Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, to Mark Lazarowicz MP

Thank you for your letter of 22 November to the Foreign Secretary on behalf of your constituent _ , about Shaker Aamer. I am replying as Minister responsible for counter terrorism issues.

On 6 July the Prime Minister confirmed to Parliament that the Government will continue to make efforts to secure Mr Aamer's release and return to the UK. On 17 November in Washington, the Foreign Secretary reiterated our position to Secretary Clinton. This was reinforced by the Deputy Prime Minister during his meeting with Secretary Clinton on 1 December at the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe Summit. We continue to discuss Mr Aamer's case with officials in the US but the outcome of these discussions is uncertain. It is important to be clear that the ultimate decision in respect of Mr Aamer's release remains one for the US.

The UK believes that the indefinite detention of detainees is unacceptable, and we have repeatedly called for Guantanamo Bay to be closed. We remain committed to assisting the US with this by facilitating engagement with countries that have agreed to accept former detainees, and by sharing experience and advice on managing the return process. We have made a significant contribution to reducing the number of detainees in Guantanamo Bay by taking back nine UK nationals and, exceptionally, five former legal residents, more than any other EU member state.

ALISTAIR BURT